On Public Debate, Naming the Enemy, and White Privilege: “a most disagreeable mirror”

Let’s start with one of the most heated public and political issues in the U.S. for at least four decades since Roe v. Wade: the abortion debate.

How does that debate resonate differently if framed as Pro-Life v. Pro-Abortion when compared to Anti-Abortion v. Pro-Choice? Or how does that debate resonate differently if framed as the rights of the unborn child versus women’s rights?

But the abortion debate reveals more than just the power of naming the enemy in that contest of ideologies because the abortion debate has often devolved into mostly a struggle for power, one that leaves in its wake both the claimed concern for the unborn child and women. In other words, too often the abortion debate is about scoring public points or making political hay—and not about the welfare of marginalized human beings, especially in the context of race and racism (without the intervention of the courts, affluent white women had access to reproductive rights that poor black women were denied).

And then if we dig deeper, the abortion debate in its most extreme and insensitive forms also becomes a battle between privileged agents, ones who ignore the race and class issues that significantly overlap the more narrow debate about access to abortion or reproductive rights.

For several years now, I have watched and participated in an increasingly hostile education reform debate that has many of the same characteristics I have identified above.

Early in my public (and evolving) role writing about that reform (in the more recent of thirty-plus years advocating for reform as part of my daily practice as a classroom teacher at both the high school and higher education levels), I found the need to define the debate as a struggle between No Excuses Reformers (NER)—who focus on in-school only reform as accountability—and Social Context Reformers (SCR)—who call for both social and educational reform as equity—aligning myself with the latter.

Also early in that public effort, I confronted directly and even interacted with some of the prominent agents of NER, something I gradually stopped doing. However, those contentious exchanges inevitably spurred my being framed as anti-reform.

Coming from advocates of NER, that label offended me greatly—again because I entered education and then committed my work as a teacher for decades to very unpopular reforms such as expanding the canon to include black and female writers, ending tracking, and erasing the masked racial bigotry of my small home town that was reflected in the high school’s disciplinary and curricular practices.

However, recently Andre Perry and Angela Dye have also used the label “anti-reform” and then I came across this Tweet:

Here I had to step back from my entrenched knee-jerk response to the “anti-reform” label because for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes, the use of “anti-reform” is in the context of many people I have framed as SCR advocates becoming so committed to fighting NER, Perry has noted “that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic.” In other words, the two dominant voices debating education reform are often indistinguishable in their missionary zeal and their tendency to ignore the very communities, families, and children historically and currently mis-served by both reform agendas and traditional public schooling.

Thinnes has also commented further (here and here), reaching a powerful and important conclusion:

Exploring these [nuanced] questions [about TFA] this last year have helped start to move me from my own simplistic “us and them” camp mentality; to recognize the richness of the social justice commitments that many individuals are bringing to many sectors and orgs; to wonder what kind of systemic transformation ‘we’ actually envision; and to question who it is, exactly, that ‘we’ are really fighting for.

For me, then, I must stress that when NER advocates toss out the label “anti-reform,” I am skeptical, even cynical, about the intention, but “anti-reform” works for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes in a much different and significant way: This is a warning flag, a vital warning flag, that all along the so-called education reform spectrum, as Thinnes notes, the “us v. them” mentality allows “reform” to be yet another insensitive and blunt baseball bat swung in self-righteousness, battering indiscriminately.

Thirty-plus years into intensive state and federal education reform have not resulted in the sorts of educational or social outcomes politicians have promised and the public has expected. In fact, the reforms themselves have increasingly become secondary to the war and those poised to benefit from that reform debate.

Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—among others—require us to step back from that debate and recognize that white privilege/white denial remain the poisons infecting the so-called “both sides,” whether we label those sides NER v. SCR or reformers v. anti-reformers.

Social and educational justice advocacy that forefronts race and racism must unite everyone dedicated to education reform, and in doing so, this must stop being a war of privilege, one that is deaf and blind to the voices and interests of black, brown, and poor people.

In the August 1965 Ebony, James Baldwin began “The White Man’s Guilt”: “I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what what white Americans talk about with one another,” adding:

I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibitory. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see.

It is 50 years later, and Baldwin’s incisive confrontation of white-as-blind, white-as-deaf to the black condition, of the “most disagreeable mirror” is now being replicated in an education war too often being fought as if the greatest historical and current failure of education doesn’t involve black, brown, and poor people.

Baldwin’s refrain—”White man, hear me!”—in the context of the education reform movement being too white to matter, in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, demands an end to white privilege and white denial that maintain the burden of the accusatory gaze on black, brown, and poor communities, families, and students.

“[P]eople who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it),” Baldwin argued, “are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”

This is the education reform movement challenged by Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—a battle between mostly white advocates, impaled on their own missionary zeal and demanding that other people do what they themselves are incapable of doing.

Before us we have an enemy we seem to refuse to name, the white privilege at the root of the historical failure of universal public education and the remaining white privilege derailing both sides of the reform debate.

From New Orleans to #BlackLivesMatter, the echo of Baldwin’s “White man, hear me!” remains drowned out beneath the white noise of reform debate.

The responsibility lies with that privilege to see ourselves, to change ourselves, and thus to change the world we have created and maintained.

See Also

Why Liberals Separate Race from Class

Beware the Roadbuilders Redux: Education Reform Wars Fail Race, Again

A classic analogy is Mothra vs. Godzilla, but a more contemporary comparison—and one to be highlighted in upcoming Marvel superhero films—is Marvel’s Civil Wars.

First, the larger situation involves two powerful forces, both of which are driven by the missionary zeal of being on the right side, that wage war against each other while those who both sides claim to serve is trampled beneath them as collateral, and mostly ignored, damage.

More specifically, Marvel’s Civil War involves two legions of superheroes (and villains) who side with either Iron Man or Captain America (the two powerful forces characterized by missionary zeal and reckless disregard for citizens), but notable in this war is that the X-Men are neutral, as is Black Panther—serving as embodiments in the comic book universe of the Other (identified groups marginalized by status: race, sexual/gender identities, poverty).

Finally, what does this template represent? I recommend reading carefully Andre Perry’s Education reform is working in New Orleans – just like white privilege—notably:

White critics of education reform should especially include themselves in the power structure. Yes, the neo-liberal, market-driven, corporate anti-reform critique isn’t the only frame that robs black people of their voice.

I wish white folk would hear me when I say the pro-/anti-reform frame doesn’t work for black folk. If anything, our position in the social world makes us reformers. Black folk never had the luxury of defending status quo. New Orleans needed to make radical changes in education as part of larger hurricane preparedness plan. Getting a college degree is the kind of protection black people need. Cynicism isn’t protection.

Perry confronts that the rise of education reformers dedicated to bureaucratic and technocratic reform as well as the concurrent reaction to that reform agenda among those championing an idealized faith in public education have in common their willingness to both trample and ignore the black and high-poverty communities, parents, and students both groups often claim to represent.

This education reform war, like Marvel’s Civil War, fails, as Perry has noted before, the problems of race and racism: “But let’s also stipulate that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic.”

Perry concludes about the “overwhelmingly white” education reform wars: “We need less ‘reform’ and more social justice.”

Posting on Twitter in the wake of the anniversary of Ferguson, John Warner strikes a similar chord in terms of broader failures of social justice advocacy:

listening and empathy

While I entered public education dedicated to teaching as a form of activism for social justice, I can speak hear as someone who has certainly failed my own goals (confronting poverty and racism) by allowing much of my work both to feed and appear to feed the exact failure Perry and others have identified.

As I have been addressing for some time, the tensions of race and racism have been a central struggle of doing public work—although in my daily teaching, during my 18 years as a high school teacher and then more than a decade as a teacher educator, has remained more securely tethered to causes of social justice related to poverty and racism.

Lashing out against Teach For America and charter schools (among all school choice) by me and others has certainly served to ignore and even erase voices and issues connected to race.

But I also recognize the ineffectiveness of nuanced positions since my approach to Common Core has not fit within either the so-called reformer stance (pro Common Core) or the jumbled stance among idealistic public school advocates (some are for and some are against Common Core).

It is well past time, then, to emphasize that the recent thirty-years of education reform characterized by accountability built on standards and testing as well as the rise of TFA and charter schools would never have occurred if public education had been serving black and poor children as well as all formal schooling has served white and affluent children.

Education policy, then, is as complicated as social policy in the U.S.—where those in power and the public appear either reluctant or resistant to confronting the entrenched weight of race and class on social and educational equity.

And while political and public opinion are against us, those concerned with social justice linked to race and class equity must commit first to listening to and working with (not for) the communities, parents, and students who have been mis-served for decades by social and educational institutions and policies, specifically black and impoverished communities, parents, and students.

Missionary zeal and paternalism are burdens of both the education reformers and the public school advocates taking up arms against those reforms.

Broad stroke support for and rejections of any of these reforms are prone to be tone deaf and detrimental to claimed commitments for equity and social justice.

Evoking the very real and devastating realities mirrored in bad science fiction and Marvel’s Civil War, Perry argues: “New Orleanians don’t need an all-or-nothing, slash-and-burn system. We have inevitable hurricanes for that.”

And then:

Black folk are always the collateral damage of privileged people’s broad-stroke critiques. And the white criticisms of reform always negate black involvement and dare I say positive contribution toward change. We should validate the suffering, death and destruction that occurred during and in the aftermath of Katrina. But “awfulizing” isn’t the way to get there.

We don’t need the white, privileged, anti-reform framework developed by three or four white critics to deny the voices we need to uplift.

For me, the image I have evoked of political education reformers as the roadbuilders remains a valid metaphor, but it is incomplete and has too often served as just more noise drowning out those who must be heard.

So who is willing to stop the uproar against misguided and often tone-deaf education reform from the political elite long enough to listen to the black and poor communities who have witnessed decades of negligence by public institutions?

Reminder

Good intentions are not enough: a decolonizing intercultural education, Paul C. Gorski

The State (Columbia, SC): Entrenched racism drives down SC child-well-being scores

Entrenched racism drives down SC child-well-being scores

[full unedited text below]

Two facts about children and poverty are especially disturbing: children make up about 1/3 of people in the U.S. in poverty, but raising children expands those in poverty to 43%.

For South Carolina, children and poverty present a particularly challenging reality, captured by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2015 Kids Count data book.

Our state has long suffered in the bottom quartile of impoverished states in the U.S., but SC’s 2015 Kids Count profile reveals a grim picture with the state ranking 42nd in the nation in terms of child well-being:

  • SC children’s economic status has mostly worsened from 2008 to 2013 with 290,000 children in poverty, 376,000 children with parents lacking secure employment, and 349, 000 children in households with burdensome housing costs.
  • SC children’s educational opportunities remain inequitable. The percentage of children attending preschool has worsened, and so-called proficiency levels in math and reading have mixed results while high school graduation remains, although improved overall, elusive to those young people most in need of education.
  • Healthcare for SC’s children has improved, but 73,000 children remain without healthcare in the state.
  • SC’s children also face harsh community challenges. 420,000 children live in single-parent homes, an increase from 2008 to 2013, and more children, 161,000, live in high-poverty communities now than a few years ago.

The summer of 2015 has brought an intense spotlight on SC with the racist shooting of nine black citizens gathered in their church. Along with that tragedy, many in the state have continued to claim that we as a people embrace heritage and not hate.

However, political leaders and the public rarely identify the exact and real conditions behind claims of “heritage” and “tradition.” In SC and all across the South, our heritage includes crippling economic inequity and entrenched racism—both of which condemn our children to their ZIP codes, not the content of their character, being their destiny.

In the U.S., despite lingering and false stereotypes of “welfare queens,” 80% of people in poverty are from vulnerable populations: children, the elderly, the disabled, students, and the working poor.

As well, despite educational attainment, racial inequity remains powerful. Even with the same level of education, whites earn more than Hispanics and blacks. And blacks with some college have the same probability of employment as white high school dropouts.

Congressman James E. Clyburn has called for SC both to appreciate the symbolism of removing the Confederate battle flag from state grounds and to commit to substantive policy addressing the great weight of poverty and racism that our state still carries, a weight that is particularly harmful to our children.

Clyburn identifies healthcare and voting rights as policy SC must address, but there are many commitments to the lives of our children we could make to give substance to refrains of “heritage”:

  • Insure, as Clyburn notes, that all children in SC have healthcare from conception until their early 20s.
  • Seek public policy that supports all families with children, focusing on ensuring that having children doesn’t push any family into poverty.
  • Abandon the fruitless education accountability process and replace our school reform efforts with a focus on equity of opportunity: equitable K-12 and higher education funding across the state, equitable teacher assignments for all students, access to high-quality courses for all students, and quality alternatives for anyone to complete high school and college degrees despite age or background with substantial financial support.
  • Create stable and well-paying work for the people of SC that reinforces everyone’s access to healthcare and retirement/savings.
  • Confront directly and comprehensively the reality in SC that the state has enough money, but that our problem is the inequitable distribution of that capital. The infamous Corridor of Shame was not created by our school system, but the education inequity that it reveals is a reflection of the larger socioeconomic injustice across our state.

American novelist and public intellectual James Baldwin confronted Noble Prize winning author William Faulkner in the early years of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. because Faulkner called for patience among blacks in the South.

Baldwin responded with words that should resonate today in SC: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

At-Risk Students, Bad Teachers, Failing Schools: Our Blinding Accusatory Finger Pointing

Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

“The Scientist,” Coldplay

The absolute greatest gift of being a teacher by profession is accumulating throughout your career the young people gifted you by your classroom.

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a former student and current teacher, Ali Williams, who teaches English at a majority-minority, high-poverty high school in the school district that serves the county where I teach.

Among the ramblings of our nerdfest, we talked about language, about the challenges of trying to be a good teacher, and about the fields of psychology and sociology, a tension that has more and more fascinated me over a thirty-plus years career as a teacher.

For anyone who doesn’t know Ali personally or who has never spent time at her school or with her students (I have had several teacher candidates placed at the school and thus have observed there often), the reality today is that the students are likely and uncritically viewed as at-risk, the school is believed to be failing, and Ali could very easily be labeled a bad teacher.

Those pronouncements occur all across the state of South Carolina and the U.S.—an accusatory finger pointing that blinds political leaders and the public from the corrosive social forces that are reflected by students, teachers, and schools (but not created by those students, teachers, or schools).

Because the U.S. remains trapped within the lies of rugged individualism and believing the country is a meritocracy, the influence of psychology (mostly quantified claims about individual qualities and behaviors) is more readily and almost entirely uncritically and inaccurately embraced while sociology (often broad and descriptive explorations of social forces) is either ignored or carelessly discounted—often as “excuses.”

If we did deeper, another division is embedded in the disciplinary tension above—the power of numbers.

Numbers give the compelling appearance of objectivity and certainty while rich description offers complexity and uncertainty.

And the U.S. has a disturbing propensity for being a blowhard nation; we seem to like our columnists, radio personalities, and even presidential candidates to hold forth with the simplistic bloviating found among privileged white men who have never reconsidered anything, especially their own privilege.

The 10,000-hour rule, humans use only 10% of their brains, poor children have smaller vocabularies that wealthy children, high rates of black-on-black crime—each of these remains incredibly common claims throughout mainstream media, politics, and private conversations, but each is also bad numbers—at best cited in misleading ways and at worst simply wrong.

Numbers are compelling, especially when they can be used to promote “objectively” our worst prejudices.

If we focus on the black-on-black crime claim (which I believe is representative of this problem), that data are misleading because essentially most crime is within race (white-on-white crime is about 84% and black-on-black, 91%).

Crime is also strongly connected with poverty, and then poverty disproportionately impacts blacks.

In other words, a rich and detailed description of crime, one that is more accurate and not accusatory, pulls back from focusing the gaze on individuals and raises questions about why so much crime is among family members and acquaintances, why so much crime is within lives overburdened by poverty, and why the criminal justice system also disproportionately targets some people (blacks, the poor) while somehow turning away from other people (whites, the affluent).

The black-on-black crime lie is not much different than the at-risk students, bad teachers, and failing schools lies.

The accountability movement in education has embraced and perpetuated high-stakes testing in order to increase the quantification of blame, to make sure the accusatory finger pointing remains on individuals and not the social forces creating those things being measured.

As a result, satire is hard to separate from reality:

In an effort to hold classroom instructors more accountable, the Illinois State Board of Education unveiled new statewide education standards Friday that require public school teachers to forever change the lives of at least 30 percent of their students. “Under our updated educator evaluation policy, teachers must make an unforgettable, lifelong impact on at least three of every 10 students and instill a love of learning in them that lasts the rest of their lives,” said chairman James Meeks, adding that based on the annual assessments, if 30 percent of students don’t recall a particular teacher’s name when asked to identify the most influential and inspiring person in their lives, that instructor would be promptly dismissed. “We are imposing these standards to make certain that a significant proportion of students in any given classroom can someday look back and say, ‘That teacher changed the course of my life, making me who I am today, and there’s no way I could ever repay them.’ Anything less is failure.” Meeks also confirmed the implementation of another rule aimed at ensuring that no more than 40 percent of a teacher’s students end up in prison.

How is this substantially different than No Child Left Behind requiring 100% proficiency by 2014? How is this substantially different than legislation demanding teachers and schools close the achievement gap (a coded lie again no different from the black-on-black crime claim)?

Labeling students at-risk, teachers bad, and schools failing is itself the real failure because it keeps our eyes focused on the consequences—not the causes—of the problems we claim to be addressing.

My former student Ali who is now a wonderful and dedicated young teacher can never be accurately reduced to a number, just as her students can never be rightfully represented by a number.

But our words matter also.

Overwhelmingly, the labels we assign to students, teachers, and schools reflect the conditions of lives and communities not created by those being labeled.

We must end the use of deficit language that points the accusatory finger at people who are the victims of situations beyond their control because that absolves the few who do have the power both to create and tolerate the great inequities that now characterize the U.S.

Distorting numbers and simplistic labels, in fact, make it less likely that we can and will confront when individuals are to blame and when we do fail students, education, and our communities (and, yes, those failures do exist, although not in the ways we hear daily among those prone to blame).

At-risk students? How about looking at some data and asking some fundamental questions?

Those students we tend to label “at-risk”—black, brown, poor, ELL, and special needs—are disproportionately likely to be taught by un-/under-qualified and early career teachers. Why?

If we answer that—along with why they live in homes and communities overburdened by poverty—and then do something about those conditions, we would find our urge to label those students suddenly different.

If we somehow swapped children in so-called failing schools with so-called exemplary schools (both in their homes and their schools), the labels would stick with the conditions, not the children.

This would hold true if we swapped faculty between so-called failing and so-called exemplary schools.

If we genuinely believe in universal public education as essential to democracy and equity, then we must resist the corrosive power of quantifying and labeling that has become entrenched in how we talk about students, teachers, and schools.

I am a teacher, and many of my former students, like Ali, are teachers.

“Nobody said it was easy,” could be about this profession we share. “No one ever said it would be this hard.”

As formal schooling begins again this fall, however, many students, teachers, and schools are facing conditions that now make education even more difficult because of accusatory finger pointing, numbers and labels that mask the lingering stereotypes and biases that create so called at-risk students, bad teachers, and failing schools.

“Education” Journalism’s Hollow Echo Chamber: New Orleans Edition

What’s in a publication’s name? Apparently when the publication’s title includes “Education,” the lesson is “reader beware.”

First, the ever-misleading Education Next trumpets: Good News for New Orleans, concerning the Recovery School District created post-Katrina, which eradicated public schools in the city.

Essentially and uncritically parroting that piece, Education Week proclaims: New Orleans Test Scores Have ‘Shot Up’ 10 Years After Katrina, Report Says.

We have been here before since mainstream media—even the so-called “liberal media”—are prone to whitewashing the story of disaster capitalism in New Orleans education reform. And I have discussed recently the need to have a nuanced and complicated examination of both public and charter schools, inspired by Andre Perry’s impassioned and blunt confrontation of why black parents have embraced charter schools in New Orleans.

So it is in that spirit that I note, Salon (no “Education” in the title, by the way) has run a much better and more complex look at post-Katrina education reform in New Orleans: “Reform” makes broken New Orleans schools worse: Race, charters, testing and the real story of education after Katrina.

Much of Berkshire’s investigation parallels the concerns anticipated by the National Education Policy Center’s press release about claims and research coming out of the 10th anniversary of Katrina, which concludes:

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent reforms, there remain more questions than answers. Even if the reforms implemented under such a hyper-politicized arrangement show some clear gains in student achievement, as seems to be the case, it is important to attend to the serious equity concerns that remain in the system, and to examine other outcomes, beyond test scores. The preliminary evidence, from a combination of news reports and research studies, suggests that the New Orleans reforms disproportionately benefit more advantaged students, relative to the most at-risk and under-served students. In light of these concerns, there is a need for more research that systematically examines whether the reforms have truly altered the structure of opportunities for students who are low-income, of color, English Language Learners, or have disabilities. Given the additional resources and the unique New Orleans experience, there are also questions about how sustainable and replicable the New Orleans model is, even though many cities are adopting similar reforms.

It is also important to ask how much local, democratic oversight the public is willing, or should be willing, to trade for somewhat higher test scores. In New Orleans, as well as in many other cities and states seeking to adopt a “recovery” or “portfolio” model, policymakers should ensure that the temporary turnaround measures do not permanently disenfranchise local actors.

So we are left with two truisms about education publications and education reform: (1) If “Education” is in the publication title, you better do your homework, and (2) if education reform is touted to achieve outcomes that seem too good to be true, then they likely aren’t true.

Check Missionary Zeal among All Education Advocates

Ask several self-proclaimed education advocates their opinions about charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, and the responses, to the general public who do not think daily about education reform, are likely baffling since some claim all three of those are necessary commitments for better schools and others claim all three are misguided commitments that are harming not only education and democracy but also our students and teachers.

For several months now, I have been in contact with Sarah Matsui during the publication process of her in-press book on Teach For America, focusing on how TFA impacts corp candidates. As the publication date of Matsui’s book approaches, our conversation has turned to the education reform debate—notably how divisive and thus distracting that debate tends to be in terms of the larger goals of universal public education, social justice, and race, class, and gender equity.

Throughout my career as an educator—over thirty years—and then the more recent decade-plus seeking a public voice for education and equity advocacy, I have struggled with being an outsider in the “both sides” nature of policy debates concerning education.

As one example, I took an immediate stance against Common Core that, obviously, situates me in opposition to Common Core advocates—but my reasons for rejecting Common Core as just another failed commitment to accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing also alienate me from those determined to reject Common Core as uniquely flawed standards (and thus some good standards exist) or as over-reach by the federal government (specifically President Obama).

In other words, I have—with little success—tried to move the critical gaze away from Common Core specifically and toward the larger problem with accountability policy.

Yes, having states back out of Common Core and the connected high-stakes testing contracts is a credible goal, but if those acts simply mean states then embrace yet a different set of standards and high-stakes test, that is not victory at all; in fact, it is proof that we are missing the larger picture showing us the root causes of inequity in both our society and our schools.

Matsui is anticipating the same dilemma for her since her TFA work—nuanced and detailed—will come in the wake of rising criticism of TFA as well as the appearance that political, public, and individual support for the program is waning.

What Matsui and I have been discussing has helped me once again reconsider my own work, my own advocacy in much the same way Andre Perry’s recent commentary has tempered my discourse and goals related to charter schools.

I think advocates for public education as a foundational institution for seeking and insuring our democracy and building equity for all people have an obligation to criticize charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, for example, as misguided and often harmful education policy—despite claims that these are all designed to address the same goals of equity.

I think we also have the right to unmask the missionary zeal behind what has come to be called corporate education reform.

However, we cannot remain fixated there, and we must check our own missionary zeal.

Here is where I think reconsidering TFA can be a significant turning point in how we begin to build a movement toward something positive—equitable society, equitable schools—instead of simply calling for this or that reform to be dismantled.

As I noted above about Common Core: Yes, I believe, defunding TFA and eliminating TFA in its original form are important and credible goals, but even if those happen, we cannot be fooled into thinking we have addressed a root cause of the larger problems that face us in society and formal education: race-, class-, and gender-based inequity of opportunity.

Here is the key. How often have we asked: What are the conditions that created the possibility for TFA (or charter schools, or Common Core) to exist in the first place?

If black, brown, and poor children were being served by well-funded schools and taught by experienced and qualified teachers, would TFA have had a problem for which they could offer a solution (regardless of how flawed we believe that solution to be)?

As I worked through the school choice debate, I found myself asking people trapped in the “both sides” frenzy to consider an education system in which choice wasn’t necessary—a school system that genuinely offered all children the sort of education that the affluent already insure for their children.

I concede that it may require a certain amount of missionary zeal to attract the attention of the wider public not often concerned with education and education reform. But as those of us advocating for equity and social justice may now be witnessing a turning point—greater skepticism about accountability, charter schools, and TFA—we must check that missionary zeal so that we do not misrepresent our ultimate goals.

Those goals must be framed in the positives—the lives and schools we are seeking for all children and people—and not mired in the negatives—defeat Common Core, close charter schools, defund TFA—that will likely, if achieved, not produce the outcomes we claim to seek.

Currently, it is a lonely place to say that I have real problems with charter schools, Common Core, and TFA, but that I really think they are not the problem; they are examples of how too many in power have misread the problem, or even ignored the problem.

Can we set aside the “both sides” debate and begin to build a conversation, a conversation open to all voices and to listening so that we can work together toward the difficult and complex goals of equity?

I sit in my home state of South Carolina the day after yet more protests were held in the state capitol of Columbia by the KKK and the New Black Panther Party.

When my daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law left my house yesterday, my daughter texted that they passed several cars on the highway with Confederate battle flags waving.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “but it bends towards justice”—his nod toward faith.

Life is short, I fear, and that arc is incredibly slow when you are among the living, the very real faces and eyes of the ones you love.

I sit in my home state of South Carolina, and I worry about allowing the removal of a flag from state grounds to become the victory instead of simply a moment on the journey to the victory we all deserve.

And that has forever shaded my eyes as I witness this march toward social justice and educational equity.

“Remember,” cautions Langston Hughes:

The days of bondage—
And remembering—
Do not stand still.

Let us be guided not by the blindness of missionary zeal, but grounded by the long-range focus that leads to action.

Divided, Conquered: “Everybody blogs. Nobody reads.”

In her 14 June 2015 email update about her blog, Susan Ohanian offered an opening statement:

When I started this website of resistance 13 years ago, I posted a lot of outrage, outrage I tried to buttress with research. Of late, I’ve cut way back because I feel there’s far too much jabber filling the air–too much rage and not enough explanation. Everybody blogs. Nobody reads. I figure whatever I might say just gets lost in the cacophony so I’ve turned my efforts elsewhere. Right now I’m working on a big project that I hope will startle you with originality. At the very least, it won’t be part of the chorus.  

I’m not abandoning the site–just cutting back on its size.

Well before the education reform debate blossomed on social media, Ohanian was dissecting and challenging the most recent cycle of high-stakes accountability—from the perspective of a classroom teacher.

I very much feel compassion for Ohanian’s concerns, having begun writing against accountability and specifically high-stakes testing in the 1990s, also as a classroom teacher. Once I moved to higher education in 2002, my access to public work was significantly expanded so my public commentaries reach back about as long as Ohanian’s (although my move to blogging is about half that span).

The powerful refrain—”Everybody blogs. Nobody reads”—resonates, I think, because it touches on how social media has in many ways had the opposite effect than its great promise: Instead of building solidarity, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest have allowed factions to develop and has reduced much of the vibrant and important discourse to be subsumed by the great failure of social media—the cult of personality.

The online world of public debate about education and education reform has included the ugliest part of social media—anonymous vitriol—but it has also, for me, created a much more troubling dynamic. On more than one occasion, I have been refuted and attacked (based on false assumptions) by those with whom I share solidarity.

It is all too easy, then, for those of us who share the same mission to turn on each other while those who are running the education reform machine sit by mostly untouched.

In fact, that is what the minority in power thrive on—divide and conquer.

Part of my advocacy includes making a case for the importance of workers so I often ask people to consider if all service workers in the U.S. (mostly poorly paid and many part-time without benefits including the horribly under-paid wait staff) simply did not work tomorrow, how would that compare in impact to if all the CEOs did not go to work tomorrow?

And how does that impact expose real value to society versus how we compensate work in the U.S.?

One wait staff compared to one billionaire is a tale of supreme inequity.

Without solidarity, without a moral grounding among those who still may disagree, each of us is ripe for the sort of resignation that happens in isolation and powerlessness.

Each time I post on Common Core and the views increase and then I post on race and the views drop, I contemplate simply walking away from trying to make a difference.

The reason I have shifted from traditional scholarship and toward public work stems from the echo chamber that is scholarship where, to paraphrase Ohanian, everybody publishes, but nobody reads.

Social justice and educational equity are, simply put, the defining goals of a free people, and it seems these are the anchors for a solidarity that could bring about change.

Partisan politics, the cult of personality, building a brand, blogging and not reading/talking but not listening—these, however, are the antidotes to solidarity, and the fuel of the status quo of inequity that poisons our society and our schools.

Without solidarity, each of us is destined to resignation, failing to hold hands and realize our collective power against the few who can afford simply to wait us out.

We are a people, I fear, tragically trapped in individual ownership and competition, denying the essential communal nature of being fully human.

Dedicating the self to the public good is the ultimate act of selfishness. Solidarity is not, then, self-sacrifice, but self-preservation.

We have passion (Ohanian’s “rage”) and we have explanations, but we are doomed by a poverty of solidarity in our pursuit of social and educational equity.

Quality of So-Called “Education” Journalism Actually Low

In both my May Experience course on education documentaries and my foundations in education course, we view and discuss the 2008 HBO documentary Hard Times at Douglass High:

Shot in classic cinema verité style, the film captures the complex realities of life at Douglass, and provides a context for the national debate over the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, focusing on the brutal inequalities of American minority education, considered an American tragedy by many.

Although many scenes are powerful, one in particular remains disturbingly relevant in 2015: The camera captures with a voice-over students taking the standardized test that is being field-tested for students (no stakes), but will be high-stakes for the school and teachers; many of the students are shown with their heads down, essentially making no effort on the test.

Hard Times ends by noting that the administration has been replaced and Douglass High (Baltimore, MD) joins one of many narratives that too often we read about in the on-going era of high-stakes accountability: failed schools, schools “taken over” by the state, closed schools.

A few years ago, I was working on an Op-Ed for The State (Columbia, SC), but I was challenged about my outline of the accountability movement in South Carolina by the editor. Just for context, I began teaching in SC in 1984, when the first implementation of accountability began, linked to higher teacher pay, greater educational funding, and the start of the standards/high-stakes testing movement.

The editor insisted that accountability was a child of the late 1990s, but I was able to send her links to the first SC laws in the late 1970s and explained my own life as a teacher at a school where we were actively teaching to the exit exam in the early and mid-1980s (including double-tracking students in math and ELA courses as tenth graders to help them pass the tests to graduate).

What do these two topics above have to do with each other?

For thirty years, journalism addressing education and more specifically education reform has been inadequate to the point of being a huge part of the education reform problem.

Take for yet another example this piece from The Hechinger Report (and a repost in Education Week): Stakes for “high-stakes” tests are actually pretty low.

The maps, data, and serious tone are likely to have masked the flippant headline as well as terse “gotcha” lede: “It turns out that the stakes for this spring’s Common Core-aligned tests are not quite as high as they might seem.”

Seems all that opt-out nonsense and teacher caterwauling has been for naught, right?

Just as I suspected. As the article clarifies early, “both sides” are truly out-of-bounds:

“I think the stakes are either overstated or understated depending on which side of the argument you’re on,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Both sides need to take a step back and just take a look at this map.”

As one point of concern, however, let’s consider another piece in the same publication: More than 5,000 Mississippi third-graders could be held back this year for low reading scores:

Results of the new third-grade reading test announced Thursday that aimed to make it tougher for students to advance if they don’t read at grade level could mean 15 percent of the test-takers will repeat third grade.

Some 38,000 public school students took the Third-Grade Reading Summative Assessment, widely known as the “third-grade gate,” created under state law to address lagging reading skills and prevent the practice of “social promotions.”

I wonder how these children being mis-served by callous legislation refuted by decades of research on grade retention and rejected by the National Council of Teachers of English feel about flippant and misleading journalism? [1]

Where has the mainstream press examined that grade retention doesn’t have “two sides,” but one very clear position supported by evidence?

Where has the mainstream press examined that standardized testing remains biased against racial minorities, the impoverished, English language learners, special needs students, and females?

Where has the mainstream press exposed that the entire accountability era has failed?

Don’t bother looking, the mainstream media is too busy being snarking, inadequate, and lead by the nose in the era of press-release journalism that has coincided with educational accountability.

The press is a willing participant in the “miracle” school lies, as long as they are about charter schools [2], but quick to vilify teachers who cheat.

Journalists serve as bridges between a more technical and complex world (political, academic, etc.) and the general public, many of whom spend little time beyond the headlines and a few sentences at the beginning and maybe the handy-dandy charts, graphs, and maps.

So let me return to the claim that “both sides” are misrepresenting the stakes surrounding the on-going accountability/standards/testing game that has now lingered for thirty years in the U.S.

Please, mainstream media, identify for me and your audience any states in which accountability/standards/testing are not ultimately geared toward high-stakes for students, teachers, and schools? (Note: That data point, by the way, would be 0).

And since all aspects of accountability are linked ultimately to high-stakes, in what way is this incomplete, misleading, and snarking “report” helping anyone—especially the children who have been and are now having their lives irrevocably changed due to inexcusable legislation with no basis in solid research?

The original breezy piece now includes an UPDATE, but even so, the essential problem remains that most people will see only the headline, maybe the lede, and then the maps. The conversation has been established by this piece even to its shoddy conclusion that includes a convenient Oliver North passive voice evasion:

All of which is to say, yes, the tests are important. Decisions will be made based on how students perform on them [emphasis added]. But the vast majority of states will use the scores only as one measure in a web of other factors when making staffing decisions. And most states have no plans to use the scores to make student advancement decisions.

Although the process would probably be pointless since journalists are trained to chase “both sides” (which tends to be one side that is credible and then another that is not), this piece could have been saved to some degree by talking with educators and assessment experts who could share that in the evidence around exit exams, grade retention, and teacher evaluations linked to test scores, a clear pattern has emerged: even when test scores are “one measure in a web of other factors,” those scores either distort that “web” or ultimately become the determining factor in that “web.”

As I have detailed before, at universities that use a “web” of factors to determine college admission, the SAT, even when weighted low, serves as a gatekeeper as those “other factors” cancel each other out. In other words, “one measure in a web of other factors” is a political scam being perpetuated by a non-critical press.

In the accountability game, this reality is even uglier since there is only one constant in the standards/testing movement: the standards and tests are constantly changing.

If anyone wants to begin to understand the dual disasters which are the accountability movement of recent history and the historical failure of providing children of color and impoverished children the educational opportunities they deserve, I suggest avoiding the mainstream press and simply spending some time with Hard Times at Douglass High.

The documentary is a hard watch, but its stark and complex examination rises above simplistic and breezy claims that trivialize children and educators in ways that occur daily in mainstream education journalism.

[1] See Retaining 3rd Graders: Child Abuse, Mississippi Style and Mississippi Reader.

[2] See Bruce Baker’s excellent The Willful Ignorance of the NJ Star Ledger.

Yes, To Be Clear, I Am Anti-Testing, Anti-Grading

Since the early to mid-1990s, I have actively practiced and preached de-testing and de-grading as an educator.

So, to be clear and not as some ploy to be provocative or to slip into hyperbole, I am solidly anti-testing as well as anti-grading.

That stance is based on a very simple point of logic: Tests and grades have been central to formal education for over a century, and the stakes of those tests and grades have dramatically increased over the last three decades; yet, virtually no one is satisfied with our system or so-called “student achievement.”

In the colloquial parlance of my South, we cannot admit that weighing a pig doesn’t make it fatter.

However, virtually every time I speak publicly, write a public piece, or am interviewed by the media about testing and grades, I come against something like this from Jordan Shapiro:

If we consider standardized testing in schools, it is clear to me that many folks get caught up in the fire of the debate and lose the ability to see both sides of the story clearly. Those who take an extreme anti-testing position are well meaning. They want to protect children’s individuality. They want to shield them from unnecessary anxiety. They want to protect valuable learning time. They want to spare children the indignity of punching chads and filling in circles. And they want to empower young people by providing them with life-long experiential learning skills.

But some of these critics also seem to forget that those who advocate for measured accountability are also well meaning….

Ultimately, there’s no way for the Federal Department of Education to equitably serve the 50 million students who attend public schools in the United States without some sort of assessment data. But do the current tests provide meaningful data? The critics say no. The advocates point out that all data is ultimately incomplete, but that doesn’t make it worthless.

Typically, the reasonable position is that both sides have good and bad; as well, the final point always swing back to “OK, standardized tests (and even grades) are misleading, flawed, and all that, but we have to have something (which means just plowing ahead with flawed tests and grades).”

This sort of common sense journalistic approach (everything is reduced to “both sides” and then each side is treated as if equal) coupled with fatalism fueled by a refusal to back up far enough to reconsider norms is a false objectivity that can only reinforce the status quo.

Therefore, along with my appeal to logic and confronting a very long history of how tests and grades have failed our students and our formal education system, we have, ironically I think, a tremendous body of data: Standardized test data are overwhelmingly and persistently correlated to social class of students’ families and remain linked to race and gender biases. Those ugly roots of standardized testing (IQ, etc.) are not mere historical artifacts since all standardized testing continues to exhibit the worst elements of inequity exposed in those roots.

And if we genuinely investigate our commitment to data, the College Board’s own research on the predictive value of the SAT when compared to simple GPA is a powerful argument against standardized testing and common sense proposals like Shapiro’s above because GPA trumps the SAT as a valuable metric.

Even though I reject traditional classroom-based grading, hundreds of grades assigned among dozens of teachers over many years (logically again) serve our need to address accountability far better than a one-shot standardized test.

This leads me to suspect that advocates of standardized tests are not as enamored with tests as much as they simply distrust teachers, but again, the data refute that distrust.

And my additional recognition is that standardized test advocates do not love the tests as much as they love how standardized testing reinforces and perpetuates their privilege: high-stakes exit exams do not gatekeep the wealthy, college entrance exams do not gatekeep the wealthy, third-grade retention based on standardized tests do not hold back the wealthy.

Standardized tests have a false allure of objectivity, a bureaucratic allure of efficiency, and a traditional allure since they have always been central to formal schooling. But most significantly, standardized testing serves the interests of the privileged—at the expense of minority and disadvantaged populations.

In the context of equity and education, standardized tests have failed, repeatedly; they are a tragic drain on school funding and instructional time, and to what end?

Instead of tests or even grades, students need rich and engaging learning experiences that include high-quality feedback from their teachers and ample time to revisit those students’ demonstrations of learning.

One teacher or even one artifact of learning doesn’t mean much at any fixed point in time.

Education occurs in fits and starts over many, many years and within a complex matrix of influences (some “bad” experiences are “good” in terms of learning).

Tests and grades are inadequate for teaching and learning, and they simply do far more harm than good.

The evidence is overwhelming for that claim, and to argue otherwise is not simply “the other side,” and it is not reasonable or justifiable because test and grade advocates also want what is best for students.

Continuing to cling to tests and grades is clinging to very negative views of human nature (especially in children) and of teachers.

I am anti-testing and anti-grading because I have committed my life to children and young people, to the complicated and unpredictable art of teaching as an act of social justice, a pursuit of equity.

Testing and grading have not built an equitable system of formal education in the U.S. (in fact, testing and grading have labeled and then perpetuated inequity); therefore, to argue that we must continue both in order to reach that goal is a grand failure of understanding the very evidence advocates claim to understand.

What opportunities and experiences are we guaranteeing all students?—this is the thing to which we must be accountable, not simplistic metrics that serve only to quantify the very inequities we refuse to acknowledge or change.

For Further Reading

Email to My Students: “the luxury of being thankful”

To My Students at the End of the Semester

Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning

Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different

Co-authored with Schmidt, R. (2009). 21st century literacy: If we are scripted, are we literate? Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

Parental Choice, Magical Thinking, and the Paralysis of Indirect Solutions

Parental choice #1: Seeking a school for their white children so they will not have to attend classes with black or brown children.

Parental choice #2: Seeking a school where their wealthy children will not have to attend classes with poor children.

Parental choice #3: Seeking a school where children will be taught Intelligent Design, but not evolutionary biology.

Parental choice #4: Not allowing their children to be vaccinated.

Parental choice #5: Smoking in the house and car while children are present.

I could continue for quite some time with the hypotheticals, but let’s turn to what we know about parental choice and education.

A 2007 study by a pro-school choice organization in Wisconsin reached the following conclusions:

Taken as a whole, these numbers indicate significant limits on the capacity of public school choice and parental involvement to improve school quality and student performance within MPS. Parents simply do not appear sufficiently engaged in available choice opportunities or their children’s educational activities to ensure the desired outcomes.

This may be just as well. Relying on public school choice and parental involvement to reclaim MPS may be a distraction from the hard work of fixing the district’s schools. Recognizing this, the question is whether the district, its schools, and its supporters in Madison are prepared to embrace more radical reforms. Given the high stakes involved, district parents should insist on nothing less.

More recently, in School Choice Versus A Public System of Education: The Big Picture, Jan Resseger explains:

Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike.  But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools.  Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings.  Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)

In the hypothetical and real contexts above, then, I am struck by Jack Markell’s assertion: School Choice Works, Privatization Won’t—notably after rejecting vouchers, his proposal: “That means using parent choice among traditional, charter, and magnet schools to foster innovative instruction, and hold public schools accountable for giving students the best opportunities possible.” [1]

I think we must acknowledge the final point—”best opportunities possible”—while adding “all” before “students” above; however, we cannot allow the essential magical thinking about choice and idealistic framing of parental choice to go unchallenged.

Let me offer next a much broader context.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed “the treatment of poverty nationally” by arguing:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Choice, market forces, the Invisible Hand—these are always indirect methods, and in many cases, magical thinking. The market might accomplish goals that benefit a people, and if so, that process is slow, characterized by fits and starts, and entirely dependent on the consumers—their wants, needs, and abilities to exercise choice.

So let’s return to parental choice #4 above.

What happens to public health if vaccinations are left to the choice of parents, the market?

In other words, the sloppy and chaotic nature of the market to address the quality of cable TV or Internet providers seems something we can tolerate.

But public health?

And this question, I think, is the same for public education.

Promoting the indirect impact of parental choice to accomplish the clear and obvious responsibilities that a public institution not only can but also must fulfill [2] is a tragic failure of a people, an ethical failure.

If we genuinely as a people viewed any child as everyone’s child, we could in the course of public funding and public schooling create the sort of educational opportunities that every child deserves, but currently only the elite are guaranteed because of the dynamics of choice trumping the assurances of the Commons and the stratifying policies driving traditional schooling [3].

And thus Markell’s final bi-partisan wink-wink-nod-nod to Jeb Bush to assert “policymakers should be ‘more daring’ when it comes to education policy” rings hollow since political leaders embracing choice are in fact shirking their responsibility and obligation to act in the service of all people.

[1] Of course, there is always the nasty implication among choice/market advocates and the “no excuses” crowd that teachers and children are just not trying hard enough. And as I detail above, those exact people are supporting letting the market “work” instead of them actually working. So once again, I invoke: “I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.” Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner), Airplane 2: The Sequel.

[2] See note above, ironically, exposed by parental choice and the market: Just what are the characteristics of the elite private schools wealthy parents choose for their children—the exact political leaders who say class size doesn’t matter but their children’s school has 155 teachers for 1150 students (a 1:7.4 ratio)? And it is here that we have the “best opportunities possible” before us while political leaders remain paralyzed, unwilling to guarantee for “other people’s children” what they cede to the market since, of course, the market favors them.

[3] And let’s ponder how the system benefits the wealthy: Would the SAT and all standardized tests be so entrenched in the U.S. educational system if their gatekeeping effects denied wealthy children grade promotion, graduation, and college entrance? Hint: No.